On a cold New York city day in 2012, a strange woman wearing a fur coat, large eye glasses and blonde hair under a fedora, patent leather shoes and a shirt with panty hose -- no pants -- wandered around. At first glance, it seems like she's just another lost soul, but the moment she opens her mouth, she is instantly recognizable. She is the grande dame of the American Theat-ah, Elaine Stritch.
The new documentary out of the Sundance Film Festival is a day-in-the-life type, showcasing Elaine Stritch as she lives and works as an actress in American theater and television at age 86, an age when most actresses have retired or moved on to another form of entertainment. But along with following Elaine on her performances, we're given a glimpse in to her private life, how she copes being a diabetic and her desperate fight to keep working, despite her body failing. This includes a guest spot on 30 Rock with Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin.
Elaine Stritch is one of the last legends of Broadway from the early days, going back to Ethel Merman and Maria Callas, and she's been in some of the best plays in the last 60 years, including Company, Angel in the Wings, Love Letters, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and a Tony Award winning performance for her one woman show Elaine Stritch, Live at Liberty. Along with her amazing theater credentials, she is also a veteran of television with over 60 appearances on various TV shows. What she'll most be remembered for is her work in the theater.
This glimpse into the extraordinarily private Stritch is one fraught with humor and sadness because we're looking at a woman who is at a point in her life when she should be retiring, but she is still performing to sell out crowds at jazz clubs. She is forced to slow down when her diabetes acts up, though she is a force to be reckoned with, and because of that, we're seeing how she isn't willing to be saddled down.
Because of Elaine's strong spirit, we're also given a view in to how hard it is to prepare for a show, and what it takes to get up on stage, at any age, and perform. Although Elaine has some difficulty now remembering lyrics, she still manages to put on this amazing show using her long term memory and sense of humor, even quipping to her beloved piano player, Robbie: "If I forget your name, we're going out of business."
Although she's never had children, it's very clear that her friends take on a motherly role for her, doing everything, including force feeding her glucose when her diabetes drops and searching for her false teeth when she puts the wrong ones in. Although she lives in a one bedroom at the Carlye Hotel in New York City, it's surrounded with people who love her and are willing to do anything for her. At one point, Elaine takes a trip back to her home in Detroit and visits with her nieces and nephews at the house she grew up in, and reminiscences about her late sisters and how she misses them desperately.
My favorite part is when Elaine is filming a scene for 30 Rock with Alec Baldwin. She's propped up up in bed, drinking water out of a cup, and as they are rehearsing a scene, Elaine starts to ad-lib a line to Alec Baldwin who goes: "You're trying to get the last word in, and it's not gonna happen you old bitch!" He walks off the set and Elaine, who didn't hear him, asks someone on crew what he said. When they repeat it back to her, she throws her head back and laughs hysterically.
In between filming all this footage of Elaine performing and rehearsing, we're also given the chance hear from various celebrities, including Nathan Lane and Tina Fey about much they admire her. At Dinner one night with John Turturro, she's telling him about how performing in Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf an Actor screamed so loud in her face that she had an orgasm. Not prepared for that, John sort of jumps back a few feet and she explains that, at her age, she doesn't plan on conforming or censoring herself.
Towards the end, when Elaine is asked to choose pictures for her new space at the Stella Adler Studio, she goes down memory lane describing how she had a passionate affair with Ben Gazzarra, and that Kirk Douglas claimed she was the love of his life before Anne Douglas came into the picture, and how she found her soulmate in John Bay, her husband of 10 years before he passed away from brain cancer. How she hoped to find love again after but never did. She instead married her work.
At one point, we're taken into a flashback of sorts, showing how hard Elaine worked on the broadway musical Company album where she was struggling to hit a high note. Even with Stephen Sondheim begging her to take a break, she was still determined to hit a high note, even with a hangover. Eventually she hit it, and it was tremendously proud moment.
Although Elaine announced her retirement in 2012 and planned on moving back to Detroit to be with her family, she is still continuing to perform her shows and is going back out on tour. She even made a guest appearance on a few other documentaries. She's determined to work until she doesn't have a pulse.
This is one of my favorite documentaries because it's showing how to achieve your dreams at any age, and and that you can maintain your independence when everyone expects you to be in a nursing home. That with age comes wisdom and a sharp tongue. It's definitely something to aspire to become. Her feisty nature is contagious. I want to be just like her when I'm 90, a total wise-ass to the bitter end.
Have you seen the Elaine Stritch documentary? What did you think? was it too invasive, or did it showed just enough of Elaine's life without being overwhelming?
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